Zinc: a surprisingly versatile metal

While not always in the spotlight, zinc is actually the fourth most widely used metal in the world and promises to be a hot commodity in the near future, thanks to its role in electric vehicle batteries. Dubbed ‘the great protector’, zinc safeguards skin from the sun, steel from corrosion, crops from drought, and electric vehicle batteries from catching fire, making it an essential to our modern world.

The breakdown

Zinc is both a chemical element and a metal, formed from hot, aqueous fluids beneath the earth’s surface. Silvery blue in appearance, it is brittle at regular temperatures but malleable when heated to 1000 degrees Celsius, at which point it can be beaten and drawn into a wire. Zinc is prized for its anti-corrosive properties, its ability to bond well with other metals and its capability of conducting electricity.  Supporting a sustainable future, zinc is 100 per cent recyclable – in fact, 60 per cent of all zinc produced is still in use.

A versatile metal

Historically, zinc was alloyed with copper to produce brass. More than 2000 years ago, the Romans and Chinese were producing brass items such as coins, armour and jewellery. The Romans also used calamine (zinc carbonate) for healing wounds.

This early understanding of zinc’s strength, alloying abilities and healing properties is greatly developed today, with modern applications of zinc spanning construction, health, agriculture, and the green energy sector. Worldwide, zinc is used primarily to protect steel from rust: galvanising accounts for about half the world’s total consumption of zinc. However, zinc is rapidly gaining attention in the burgeoning electric vehicle battery sector. Initially trailing behind other metals such as nickel, cobalt and lithium, zinc is now emerging as a cheaper and safer option – unlike lithium-ion batteries, zinc batteries are non-flammable. Understandably, this also makes zinc batteries preferable over lithium-ion batteries in sectors such as maritime and aviation.

Zinc holds numerous other industrial, commercial and biological applications in our modern society. Usage includes die casting precision objects (zinc’s low melting point enables it to be cast into different shapes in steel moulds) such as zips, staples, and door handles, and creating brass objects such as musical instruments, light fittings and taps. Zinc oxide is used in skin products such as anti-dandruff shampoo, zinc cream, cosmetics and antiseptic ointments, and for manufacturing rubber tyres, ceramic glazes, paints and floor coverings. When added to crops, zinc oxide helps plants to resist drought, salinity and heat. Zinc sulphate is used to produce TV screens and fluorescent lights. Other zinc compounds can be used as dissolving agents, to prevent plastic from cracking or even to fire-proof timber. Due to its immune boosting properties, zinc is also used in a range of health products, such as dietary supplements and food additives. Given its wide range of applications, it’s clear to see this versatile metal is critical to our modern economy, our health, and our environment.

Australia’s role in zinc mining

Australia is home to the largest reserves of zinc in the world – an estimated 68 million metric tons in 2020. It is also one of the leading producers of zinc: in 2020, China, Peru and Australia accounted for 54 per cent of global zinc production. Australia is well placed to continue playing a key role in zinc mining in the future, possessing more than 20 per cent of the world’s known zinc-lead resources and currently the largest exporter of these metals worldwide. Australia also contains one of the world’s highest grade zinc deposits in north-west Queensland, upon which the Dugald River mine is currently being developed.

Australia is at the forefront of technology in zinc mining and processing, with almost all of the country’s underground operations highly mechanised, allowing for efficient, safer, and more cost-effective mining. Enhanced mining technologies have also paved the way for more environmentally friendly mining processes, enabling the industry to reduce waste and the use of dangerous chemicals. In addition to being a key player in zinc mining and production, Australians are an avid fan of the metal for galvanising purposes, using more zinc-coated steel per person than any other country.

Zinc in the future

As we transition to a cleaner, greener world, zinc promises to play a key role in supporting this journey. Zinc offers a cheaper, safer, and less toxic alternative across various applications, ensuring its value will only increase in the future. Use of zinc in the battery sector is poised to grow exponentially this decade, with annual demand forecasted to rise from 600 tonnes in 2020 to 77,500 tonnes by 2030. In the health industry, wearable technologies such as fitness trackers, along with hearing aids and heart monitors, are predicted to lean more heavily on zinc technology in the future, given zinc is significantly less toxic than materials like lead or lithium, and can be safely exposed to the air and water. As we move towards a renewable energy future, zinc is waiting in the wings – infinitely recyclable, widely available, and ready to ramp up its role in strengthening, protecting and sustaining modern life.

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